Is there any other film franchise like Terminator, begging both for and against its own continuation? So far we've seen three sequels and a television show rooted in the technopocalyptic mythology of James Cameron's 1984 original, each of them apparently unconcerned with a gaping hole in the master plot: There is nothing whatsoever that John Connor can do to actually prevent Judgment Day.
Despite its incessant "There is no fate but what we make" mantra, the timeline is more or less locked, changeable only if a time-hopping Terminator does in fact manage to put a bullet (or a liquid-metal spike) between Connor's ears. The entire plot is a red herring, and bare elaboration on Terminator's space-time logistics may in fact be the simplest way to explain basic time-travel paradoxes to whomever is willing to hear you out on the subject.
The argument for the Terminator series, then? Mostly Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but that's quite enough. Cameron's 1991 blockbuster remains an effects milestone and a genre pinnacle—not to mention an enduring example of what can be oh-so-right about a summer sequel—and made young John Connor's Sisyphean bot-dodging compelling enough that we're still coming back 18 years later. Fox's intermittently awesome and newly cancelled Sarah Connor Chronicles was a welcome enough warm-up, but we're more than 10 years past the original date of Skynet's Judgment Day. Let's see some robot war already.
McG's Terminator Salvation, thankfully, is glad to oblige. Both a sequel and a prequel, the film takes place in the months following Judgment Day (bumped back to 2018) and finds John Connor (Christian Bale) working his way toward the top of the Resistance chain of command as hordes of Skynet robo-baddies scour our ruined Earth looking to alternately kill or capture any human survivors. We're also introduced to two other young men: the first is condemned convict Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), whom we first meet in 2003 as he signs his body over to Cyberdyne Systems, and the second is a teen-aged Kyle Reese (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin), whom we first met way back in 1984 when he came from the future and knocked up John Connor's mom.
Connor, of course, has long been aware of Reese's significance, though the two men have not yet met. He also knows that an intercepted Skynet hit-list places only Reese's name above his own, and for that reason he must throw himself into the fray to find Kyle Reese and bring him into the Resistance fold. What follows, of course, is boatloads of evil robot mayhem.
At this point in the series—with audience expectations lowered by the disposable Terminator 3 and both Connor and Reese predestined to survive every scrape—wicked, big-budget sci-fi action is all Terminator Salvation needs to deliver to keep things afloat. The film excels at that. As painful as it is to validate someone who would ask us to refer to him as "McG," he emerges here as a surprisingly assured director of action sequences. From a visceral long-take helicopter crash to the thrilling composition as Connor fights back aquatic "Hydrobots," it will be surprising if any other action film this summer approaches the pace or success rate of Salvation's setpieces. It's also easily the most stylish Terminator film, thanks to notoriously Bale-distracting cinematographer Shane Hurlbut's career-best work.
But it's James Cameron's narrative sense, not his style, that makes the first two Terminator films so indelible, and in that regard Terminator Salvation is kind of a bust. The terminally doctored script is often turgid and messy, and is alternately too self-conscious (with the exception of a line reclaimed by Reese, the obligatory callbacks are oversold) and not self-conscious enough. Sarah Connor's cassette-tape communiques draw unnecessary attention to the pricklier corners of the paradox without taking the opportunity to fill in some holes. And if lack of command of his story weren't enough to demerit McG, the acting surely is; though Yelchin and Worthington do fine work, Bale and Bryce Dallas Howard don't even manage to outclass the reliably awful Common.
Still, it's hard not to recommend Terminator Salvation, primarily because it's probably everything you expect it to be, and hopefully a bit here and there of what you want it to be. As the first section of a proposed trilogy, it's much more of a shaky first step than a revitalization, but whatever. We'll be back.